Rock climbing is a counter-intuitive activity. As I look up the steep rock face, my instinct is to cling. But when I do, my feet slip out from under me, my fingernails scraping. Push away from the wall and, spider-like, the balls of my feet stick like glue and propel my body upward. There’s too much air between my gut and the granite, I think. I still want to cling. I want to hug the rock.
But the only way to go forward is to push away.
I see the route to take; it seems like the only way to get there is to lunge. But as I climb, my route continually wavers, recontextualized by every small step, every shift in weight.
Writing is a counter-intuitive activity. I imagine the solidity of the finished product; I plan my route. The writing though, like the climb, is wildly unpredictable and linear only in retrospect. At any given moment, a web of possibilities unfolds before me. Every word choice threatens to launch me up another breathtakingly complex path and away from my original, seemingly simple intention. At the end, I find it is not the end, but the point at which I have arrived. I toss my authorial intentions in crumpled words to the floor and question my abdication of them: Would they have been true? Would they have been “right” had I pursued them? Have I failed?
Many students believe that language is exact. Or, at least, it should be exact. Sure, we should strive for precision in our prose. Our efficient communication with one another is dependent on it. But at the same time, this expectation, like many others that demand the “right” answers from students, dampens their own faith in their cognitive development. They lose patience with their own minds. This academic self-intolerance that many students learn in high school, coupled with the emotional one that accompanies adolescence, threatens to undermine the cognitive and affective growth students do achieve. Adulthood and its harbingers, including “adult” writing, are not infallible. I fail in my writing every day. We all do.
But students are frustrated. They look to us for the right answers and the formula for the perfect essay. They rebuke their own minds for failing to automatically process mercurial thought into elegantly carved paragraphs. Sometimes, in their quest for exactness, they capture every intuitive association into convoluted prose. Or they mimic “adult” writing and filter their thoughts through stilted malapropisms. By trying too hard to be good writers, they turn into awful ones. “They’ve somehow been taught or have learned,” M. Elizabeth Sargent Wallace writers in her essay Errors and Expecations; or How Composition Scholarship Changed the Way I Ask for and Respond to Student Writing, “not to trust their natural sentence-making abilities, their ability to think in language.”
Teaching then, is also a counter-intuitive activity. Instead of penalizing error, Wallace argues, we should laud error as an indicator of students’ exploding intelligence. More brilliance detonates inside an adolescent’s brain than he or she knows what to do with. Every cognitive leap is accompanied by a drop in prose clarity and grammatical logic. By punishing these errors, instead of working with them, we discourage cognitive risk-taking and reward “safe” writing. Climbing instructors never teach you to stay on the ground. But they don’t expect you to leap like Superman either. And strangely enough, they encourage falling as preparation for climbing. Do we?
Every day, I see students feeling impossibly distanced from the kinds of “adult” writing modeled for them. It looms like the top of a cliff and they lunge awkwardly through their prose, just like how many of them hasten towards adulthood. Adolescence is a unique cognitive and emotional period; mimicry of maturity is not its sole objective.
With patience and tolerance, we can help students stretch their childhood language in increments to capture these exploding thoughts. With the same patience, we can help them meet adulthood.
When it happens in this way, it is authentic and beautiful, almost athletic in prowess. Like the climber who makes the crux move no one else can ever make, never with the same rhythm, or with the same body.